Media: Why we need `boring' news

The young find it dull, advertisers won't pay for it. But we can't afford to take the news out of prime time
Once upon a time watching television was oh-so-simple. Mum, dad and the kids slumped around the only television set and watched hour upon hour of the same channel until the white dot faded into blackness in the middle of the screen. And you had better be sitting comfortably when it was time for the news at 9pm or 10pm, otherwise you might miss the Russians invading Hungary or the Americans threatening to go to war over Soviet missiles in Cuba.

But today, as 500 senior television news executives from 70 countries gather in Barcelona for the annual NewsWorld global summit, they are being forced to confront a millennial nightmare. The simplicities of the 1950s television home have long gone, and the titles of some of the NewsWorld seminars give a flavour of anxiety about the future.

"Boring News" - why television news is out of touch, and why young people refuse to watch it. "Next Generation News," - what will television news look like in 10 years? Dumber? Quicker? Slicker? "When the flagship hits the rocks" - a debate about whether, like ITN's excellent News at Ten, television news will be pushed to the margins of prime-time viewing because there is far more money to be made from advertising in movies and soap operas.

The discussion I will be chairing tomorrow has the cheerful title "The death of broadcast news?" though the question mark is debatable. Some of those taking part in NewsWorld believe it is a matter of only five to 10 years before expensive news bulletins will be thrown off mainstream commercial television and on to 24-hour news channels.

Internet companies, who have become the third force in electronic news after television and radio, say television's loss can only be their gain. Media strategy analysts claim the volume of money spent on advertising on the Internet is doubling every six months, mostly at the expense of television. The president of America's NBC News, Andy Lack, conceded the obvious problem. "The present reliance on television news will be dead in the next century. My kids have already begun to fall in love with the computer screen."

One of the panellists for tomorrow's NewsWorld discussion is Hans Mahr, the president of news and sport at Germany's most popular prime-time television channel RTL. Mr Mahr believes national flagship television news bulletins in prime time across the world will probably disappear from popular entertainment channels on commercial television, as they have in Germany.

The impact of this is profound both for the ways in which we get our news and also, potentially, for democracy. During the Kosovo war, for example - the first time German troops were used in European warfare since the defeat of Hitler - RTL and their commercial competitor SAT 1 both considered a prime-time televised debate on the war. But when they looked at the enormous losses of advertising revenue caused by cancelling popular entertainment shows like the X-Files, both channels stuck with entertainment and abandoned the debate.

The big issues surrounding war and peace were left to German state run channels ARD and ZDF. But it is not so much changes to what we watch that is giving international television executives ulcers. It is how we watch. The British statistician David Raybould has been researching how people in the UK watch television when they have access to more than just the five "terrestrial" channels: BBC 1 and 2, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5. Raybould's new digital viewers are as different from our television family of the 1950s as rap music is from Perry Como. Raybould found that men in homes with satellite television watch 12 different channels a week, and in digital homes an astonishing 17 channels. Women watch 11 and 13 channels respectively. Those who watch most digital television, men aged between 25 and 44, are the most promiscuous of all. The most viewed channel for this group does not even reach 10 per cent of the total audience. That means that in digital Britain the prospect is of a country where we are all in our own little television worlds, watching different programmes, divorced from everyone else, and never likely to come upon television news unless we seek it out. The audience, in the jargon, is becoming fragmented and segmented.

Now if you think this is a world away from how you watch TV, then consider the projections which suggest more than half of us will have digital TV in the next four or five years. But the really interesting part of Raybould's research is how British viewers have followed America in developing butterfly minds.

A male digital TV viewer changes channels on average every 11 minutes. A woman viewer will manage to watch for an average of 17 minutes. Raybould suggests viewers with an enormous amount of television choice actually think differently. This kind of viewer does not consider which channel to watch so much as what type of programme he or she would like to see - entertainment, movies, sports, news, and so on. The modern viewer will keep flicking channels until something compelling hits the screen.

This is the killer punch for television executives because it destroys brand loyalty. If you want to watch Seinfeld, why should it matter whether you see it on Channel 4, on Irish TV, on BSKYB or on a satellite feed of an American channel? Who - except television executives and advertisers - really cares? Of course, Raybould's statistics have a huge bias. Those who have switched to digital, cable or satellite television are known - more jargon - as "early adopters". They have a bit of money, tend to be younger and tend towards being adventurous viewers. But everyone connected with the television industry accepts that audiences will become more fragmented. The question is how quickly. I like the idea of more choice, and do not see why television executives should decide what I watch and when I watch it. Imagine if someone told you which pages to read in this newspaper, and in which order, and you get an idea of how liberating more TV choice could be. Of course, many of us still like the idea of sitting down once a day to be told in 20 or 30 minutes by some trusted face the important news stories or issues of the day. In Britain, at least, this broadcast news tradition will continue. But at other times, and especially during a crisis like the Kosovo war, many of us want to watch events unfold with the greater depth and immediacy of a 24-hour news channel, or through an Internet news site.

The NewsWorld conference may not come up with the right answers to our television news future, but at least it will explore some of the right questions at a time when some politicians appear not to have noticed that 1950s television family is dead, and so is the idea of going back to four or five television channels. There is no going back.

But the really big question is whether the astonishingly different television audiences of the 21st century will become the active citizens and informed voters that healthy democracies need. And where will they get their news?

The writer is a presenter on BBC News 24